The Challenge and Opportunity of Teaching High School Economics
Teaching economics to high school students offers an enormous challenge and
an even larger opportunity. The challenge is that the subject matter and approach
of economics are unfamiliar, and may even seem alien, to many high school students.
To be sure, many students have some direct experience with the economy —
in buying clothes or movie tickets, holding a job and filing for a tax refund,
receiving interest payments from a bank account, or paying interest on a credit
card balance or a small loan. These interactions with the economy can offer
a toehold for a high school economics teacher.
But for most high school students, economics involves a manner of thinking
that lies outside their personal experience. The students’ idea of scarcity
sometimes involves little more than asking their parents for spending money.
Their idea of the trade-offs associated with a budget tend to focus on small
marginal purchases of entertainment and clothing, not on essentials like food,
housing, transportation, and medical care. They often expect to be working at
a job for only a few months or a year, so the notion of building skills for
a career path is apt not to be on their personal agendas. Similarly, their idea
of saving or borrowing money often involves a time horizon of six months or
a year, which is not very useful for learning about the power of compound interest.
Moreover, high school students tend to see the economy as an impersonal force
of nature acting upon them — like the weather — not as a social
system in which people make choices in a world of scarcity and trade-offs. For
many high school students, the decisions business leaders make about pricing
or hiring can appear to be highly arbitrary, as if the gods on Olympus were
playing games of chance to determine the fates of humans back down on Earth.
Decisions of the Federal Reserve about monetary policy or deliberations of Congress
about the federal budget are also apt to seem curious and inscrutable, like
the social or culinary practices of a remote and unvisited country.
Learning economics is difficult because it requires a combination of structure
and flexibility. High school students are often comfortable with either a free-form
assignment, like writing about their personal reactions to a novel, or with
a highly constrained problem, like regurgitating a list of U.S. presidents or
the capitals of all 50 states. But economics imposes a structure of analytical
frameworks, presented in a language that sounds remarkably like standard English
while actually it is dotted with terms that have quite specific definitions.
It then asks students to use these tools flexibly — a delicate balance.
A supply and demand problem in an economics class, for example, is similar in
structure to the story problems that students so often dread in math classes.
Structure can enable students to extend the reach of their insights —
but only after they have mastered the structure in question.
The opportunity offered by teaching economics at the high school level is nothing
less than the chance to foster economic literacy for the country. Nearly half
of U.S. high school students now enroll in an economics course. That proportion
rose substantially in the 1990s as a number of states began to require an economics
course in high school. However, only about two-thirds of U.S. high school students
continue their education in colleges or universities, and only about 40 percent
of those who do go on to college will take a college-level economics class.
Thus, for many students, high school provides the last chance: if they do not
study economics in high school, they will probably never get even a whiff of
The typical high school course in economics — setting aside the Advanced
Placement classes, which represent only about two percent of all students who
take a high school economics course — also differs in tone from the introductory
college course. At the college level, introductory economics courses are substantially
concerned with preparing students for additional courses in economics. The tone
of the introductory course is often heavily conceptual, with lots of graphs
and definitions and structured problems. Although high school economics courses
do typically include a component of terminology, they focus primarily on expanding
the horizons of young citizens.
The study of economics gives students a backstage tour of the world around
them, revealing many things that had previously been hidden from view. With
a working knowledge of economic terms and institutions, students can find meaning
in newspaper headlines and TV news reports that had previously seemed to be
empty words. Magazines like Business Week, Fortune, and The Economist may never
be juicy reading, but their articles can become accessible. Claims of political
figures with regard to economic policy — especially claims that offer
free lunches for all constituents — can be evaluated.
For many students, early courses in economics open up a new way of seeing the
world. Some of the lessons may feel harsh — those emphasizing, for example,
the economist’s insistence that a person or society can’t have everything,
but must choose. High school students often like to believe that their causes
— say, environmental protection — amount to absolute crusades, not
projects that must be nuanced by trade-offs. But the study of economics also
helps students to gain a sense of order and interconnection among things in
the world. It opens up the topic of responsible adulthood — in personal,
career, and financial choices and in the practice of informed citizenship —
in a way that is distinct from any other high school course.
All of us who have worked on this revision of Capstone hope that it will provide
a reliable and even inspirational set of curriculum materials on which high
school teachers can build as they seek to open their students' minds to the
insights and empowerment that the study of economics offers.
Timothy T. Taylor
Managing Editor, The Journal of Economic Perspectives
Saint Paul, Minnesota